[Screen It]

(2009) (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie) (R)

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Drama/Action: A military bomb disposal team operating in Iraq must contend with their newest member whose apparent lack of fear and need for adrenaline repeatedly puts them at risk.
It's 2004, and when their leader, Sergeant Matt Thompson (GUY PEARCE), is killed in the line of duty in Bagdad, bomb disposal team members Sergeant JT Sanborn (ANTHONY MACKIE) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (BRIAN GERAGHTY) await his replacement. That turns out to be Staff Sergeant William James (JEREMY RENNER), an experienced bomb technician who's successfully deactivated nearly 900 explosives.

Sanborn and Eldridge, however, soon learn that James either lacks fear or needs a constant surge of adrenaline from living and working on the edge. Not surprisingly, that makes them increasingly uncomfortable during each mission where his apparently carefree attitude seemingly puts them at risk. While that worsens Eldridge's mental stability, resulting in more visits from military psychiatrist Colonel John Cambridge (CHRISTIAN CAMARGO), Sanborn repeatedly confronts James about his unorthodox and presumably dangerous ways.

Yet, after he encounters a young street hustler he nicknames Beckham (CHRISTOPHER SAYEGH), and makes the parallel connection to his own young son back at home, James begins to question himself and the crazy and dangerous world in which he operates.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Certain jobs require certain physical and/or personality types. For instance, small women aren't likely to become pro football players, but at the same time, hulking but easily queasy men probably aren't best suited for the role of medical examiner. For most general positions, however, just about anybody can do just about any sort of job.

That said, bomb disposal technicians are an entirely different breed where very few people possess the mental fortitude required for the position. And that's because unlike most other lines of work, one's life isn't on the line each and every time one clocks in, dons the protective gear, and tries to keep things from going boom.

Granted, such employees don't encounter that every day in domestic situations (at least outside of those portrayed in the movies, such as "Blown Away"). But in places such as Iraq during the U.S. military occupation, I'm guessing it's pretty much of a daily occurrence, compounded by the fact that such devices could be anywhere, especially with all of the trash and other debris scattered about.

Such precarious work and the hardy (and often troubled) souls who ply that sort of trade is the focus of "The Hurt Locker," yet another war-time drama set in Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003. While its similarly set and themed cinematic predecessors have been a mixed artistic bag so far, all have failed to ignite the box office, mainly because audiences apparently have little desire to watch something that's been in and on the news so much.

This offering might just change that, not just because it focuses more on the action than the politics and psychological impact of such warfare (although the latter is present throughout), but also due to it coming from the hands and mind of director Kathryn Bigelow. No stranger to working in what's predominantly a male-dominated genre, the filmmaker seems to thrive on mixing action with examining the male psyche in terms of the violence they choose or that otherwise envelopes them.

She continues that trend here, working from a script by Mark Boal, where a seemingly fearless and apparent adrenaline junkie (Jeremy Renner) is the new replacement and team leader in a 3-man bomb disposal unit working the streets of Iraq. Staff Sergeant William James isn't over-the-top, in-your-face cocky like the testosterone-lathered hunks in "Top Gun." Instead, he's completely believable as someone who deep down needs to do this sort of work and is very good at it.

Of course, his behavior comes off as far too cocksure and reckless for those working with him (Anthony Mackie as the irritated & angry soldier, Brian Geraghty playing one teetering on a mental breakdown), and Bigelow stirs up that emotional and psychological hornets nest by repeatedly showing them doing their thing, always in ultra precarious situations and locales.

Despite some mild objections (such as the purposeful repetitiveness of said footage, a third act change of heart & mindset for one character -- that makes perfect sense, but feels far too conventional -- and the brief but unnecessary need to take extra steps in pointing out the horrors of war as well as the contrast between military and domestic home life), the film as an overall experience is quite good.

Yet, it's the various individual action & bomb diffusing sequences that are spectacular, sensational, and will likely grip you unlike most anything else in any other film this year. Bigelow's always had that going for her (just look at the action in "Point Break"), but she ups the ante here. Add in the fact that the very nature of the premise and storyline means viewers never know what's going to happen and who's going to make it out alive or not creates some stellar moments of tense storytelling.

She greatly benefits from an understated but terrific role from Renner in what's likely going to be a star-making turn for him. With movie star good looks and the sort of screen presence that one either has or doesn't (he undeniably does), the actor easily sells what Bigelow is offering, making us care about everything related to his character. This is easily award worthy work and he alone makes the film worth seeing.

But so do all of the amazing individual scenes that will register and then linger in viewers' minds long after they've seen this pic (the moment where James tugs on a trigger line and ends up unearthing a number of explosives end up surrounding him is clearly one of them, as is a pin-downed shootout in the desert).

Showing that war is unpredictable, random and more than a bit unnerving (but without too obviously beating us over the head in the process) and once again examining the male psyche and its never-ending involvement with violence, "The Hurt Locker" might not be perfect, but it's pretty darn good and clearly quite engaging. It rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed May 5, 2009 / Posted July 10, 2009

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